From mills to power-looms: Indiaʼs “diversity-driven” path of development

From mills to power-looms: India’s “diversity-driven” path of development


Sayako Kanda(Keio University)


Mumbai today bristles with skyscrapers and glittering shopping malls. Many of the recent colossal constructions stand on the site of former cotton mills, many of which were shut down in the 1980s. One may find that the interiors of shopping malls and upmarket cafés in Lower Parel or Worli retain the old glory of cotton mills and of “Bombay”. Chawls, or multi-storied residential buildings for mill workers, which have accommodated workers and their families of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds for the last hundred years or so, are also the target of Mumbai’s redevelopment projects. In early 2017, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation finally went ahead with the project of a textile museum at the site of former mills in Kalachowki. The museum may become India’s first modern industrial heritage site.

Bombay cotton mills started with spinning, which dominated India’s industrialization from the mid-19th century onward. Mill-made yarn not only replaced hand-spun yarn in India, but also fuelled the growth of hand-loom textile production in India and later China. Having retreated from the Chinese market because of severe competition with Japanese yarn, mills started producing cloth from their own yarn. After independence, mill-made cotton cloth began to face severe competition from products made by “power-looms”, small or micro weaving factories equipped with several power-looms.

The power-loom sector began to lead India’s weaving industry in terms of volume of production as well as employment, alongside the hand-loom sector. Recent studies have revealed that India’s new middle class emerged from the “informal” sector, mostly composed of small or micro enterprises, including power-looms, that produce and/or sell various consumer goods. This sector has generated employment and job opportunities for an ever-growing working population, while India’s economic growth after the 1980s has often been described as “a growth without employment”.

Contrary to claims that the struggle of mills vis-à-vis power-looms resulted from the government’s industrial and labour policies limiting large-scale enterprises, scholars have begun to see a unique dynamism in the power-loom sector, historians among them. They stress that the growth of power-looms is not a recent development, but began in the 1920s. According to Tirthankar Roy, power-looms seem to have appeared in the 1920s in the towns of Maharashtra and Gujarat, which had good access by railway to Bombay, the source of cotton yarn and capital. They also successfully employed skilled migrant weavers from adjacent regions. Many of the initial power-loom owners were hand-loom weavers who had accumulated capital to invest in this new venture. In Surat, merchants also played an active role in the new development. Surat merchants, who were not themselves cotton weavers, were more adventurous about producing not only cotton sarees in their power-looms but also saree made of silk and later of rayon, which was imported inexpensively from Japan. The 1950s, especially inland Tamilnadu and adjacent areas, also saw the growth of power-loom towns. The power-loom sector has long provided the new middle class with diverse kinds of “quasi-branded” and less expensive fashionable goods to meet their demand.

Haruka Yanagisawa has attached much importance to the empowerment and rise of the lower and lower-middle classes, alongside the corresponding diversification of consumption patterns at least from the 1920s, in order to understand India’s recent economic growth. He calls it an “industrialization from below.” In his study on South India, the hand-loom industry flourished not only owing to the supply of yarn from cotton mills but also because of growing demand among consumers of diverse social strata. Job opportunities in cities and plantations, in India and abroad, led to a rise in income of lower classes, and this has gradually encouraged them to break social and ritual barriers and to consume various commodities and food/drink, the consumption of which had been restricted by the Brahmans and other higher classes. For instance, rayon yarn, imported from Japan, began to be used extensively in South Indian hand-looms, offering a cheaper alternative to high-quality silk sarees of ritual importance. Yanagisawa has seen the rise of power-looms as an extension of such dynamic changes from below. Takashi Oishi also illustrated, with several examples, that in the early 1920s, the lower and lower-middle classes began to imitate the consumption pattern of higher classes with cheaper alternatives, mainly imported items, and that such growing demand encouraged people to produce such commodities domestically, which led to the rise of small and micro enterprises, including power-looms.

Diversity of people in terms of income level, religion, ethnicity, and caste has long generated multiple layers of market and industrial structure, which has played a critical role in India’s socio-economic development. Critical is that the “diversity-driven” path of development “has a significant role to play in allowing diverse population groups to participate in the growing market economy”, as Akio Tanabe and Minoru Mio stressed. As a backdrop to the changing landscape from Bombay to Mumbai, and from cotton mills to skyscrapers, we may see dynamic activities by diverse types of people.



Major References:

Oishi, Takashi, and Sayako Kanda, “20 Seiki ni okeru Indo Shakai Keizai no Henyo to Nichiin Boeki Kankei: Shohi, Hyosho, Aidentiti [Consumption, Socio-Cultural Representation, and Identity: The Impact of Japanese Products on India’s Socio-Economic Changes in the Early Twentieth Century]”, Shakaikeizaishigaku [Socio-Economic History], 82-3, 2016, pp.3-10. (in Japanese)

Oishi, Takashi, “Ornaments in the Commodity Diversity/Plurality of Modern India: Ecological Backgrounds, Socio-Economic Dynamism and Imported Goods”, paper presented at the 17th World Economic History Congress, Kyoto, 7 August 2015.

Roy, Tirthankar, “Development or Distortion? ‘Powerlooms’ in India, 1950-1997”, Economic and Political Weekly, 33-16, April 18-24, 1998, pp.897-911.

Tanabe, Akio, Kaoru Sugihara, and Kohei Wakimura eds, Gendai Indo 1: Tayoka Shakai no Chosen [Contemporary India Series 1: Challenges of Diversity-driven Society], Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2015. (in Japanese)

Tanabe, Akiko, and Minoru Mio, “Epilogue: Human and International Security in an Age of New Risk and Opportunities”, in Crispin Bates, Akiko Tanabe, and Minoru Mio, eds., Human and International Security in India (Routledge, 2015), pp.175-183.

Yanagisawa, Haruka, Gendai Indo Keizai: Hatten no Engen, Kiseki, Tenbo [The Economy of Contemporary India: The Origin, Path, and Future Prospects of Development], Nagoya: Nagoya University Press, 2014. (in Japanese)

Yanagisawa, Haruka, “Indo ni okeru Kasomin no Jiritsuka: Shita kara no ‘Kogyohatten’ to Nihonsei Teikakaku Shohin [Empowerment of the lower class in India: ‘industrialization from below’ and low-priced goods from Japan]”, Shakaikeizaishigaku [Socio-Economic History], 82-3, 2016, pp.51-68. (in Japanese)